Thursday, May 14, 2009

Empanadas Part 1 - The "Original" Marini's

An empanada quest

I'm trying to find Houston's best empanadas.

Why empanadas?

It goes back to my childhood. In 1970s Houston, I was not exposed to much ethnic food. Houston had some Tex Mex, bad Chinese food, some Swiss fondue, Antoine's Imported Foods, and a creperie. Not much else.

At a time before Hot Pockets and Calzones, and before South American food ever came to Houston, an empanada was an exotic thing.

The place to get emapanadas was Marini's Empanada House in the Montrose. Opening in 1971, it was a funky, bohemian joint that served exotic South American food for cheap. Marini's was pretty cool.

The original location burned in 1985. The family did not reopen for years.

When I started to research emapanadas, I learned Marini's has returned.

The new "original" Marini's

The new Marini's has a confusing name -- The Original Marini's Empanada House. It may be operated by the original family, but it is not the original "house."

The new version is a lot less funky. Two locations include Katy and far West Houston on Westheimer. Given its popularity, I expect to see more.

The Westheimer location is in a typical suburban strip center with a Chili's. Inside, this Marini's feels a lot like a Chili's. The walls are covered with chotchkies and brightly colored photos. Or if you have ever seen Office Space -- "flair."

The feel was oddly corporate, like a protype chain restaurant ready to spread nationwide. The clutter on the wall seemed calculated to convey an atmosphere of fun. Just like Chili's, it doesn't work on me.

Yet it must work for some people. On a Tuesday at lunch, Marini's was crowded.

The menu tries to offer something for everyone. There are dozens of international varieties, including Italian Marcello (with pizza sauce, sausage, and mozarella), English (ground beef, peas, worcestershire sauce), and poblano (chicken with mole). There are even more than 20 dessert varieties.

Empanada details

I ordered the most traditional kind of empanada - the "gaucho" which includes ground beef, hard-boiled egg, and olive. And I also ordered one of the fusion empanadas - barbecue beef.

I liked the subtle, unusual flavors inside the gaucho. But I did not like the flavor of the pastry crust. The taste reminded me of fried burritos in elementary school, the same sort of flavor you get from some frozen burritos in convenience stores.

The crust of the savory empanadas does not look very fried. But it has a distinctive fried flavor. Don't get me wrong. Fried foods can be great. But this was a particular kind of fried dough flavor that I have been trying to escape ever since those burritos in 1st grade.

The barbecue beef was a little better, but only because the strong sweet and tangy flavor of the barbecue sauce overwhelmed the flavor of the crust. Yet I did not find much to recommend it over a frozen Hot Pocket.

The dessert was easily the best. It was a tiny, over-the-top, deep-fried empanada with lots of sugar and cherries and a little chocolate. Yet it hardly made up for the main courses.

There is nothing worse than returning as an adult to iconic memories of youth, and then having them smashed. What went wrong? Were Marini's emapanadas better in the 1970s? Or have my tastes have just changed?

Whatever the reason, I am no longer a fan.

Marini's leaves me with questions

As I left, I couldn't help but wonder:

-Do all empanadas have that icky fried flavor?

-If I don't like Marini's, would I like empanadas elsewhere?

Next: These questions are answered at Manenas Pastry Shop and Rustika Cafe & Bakery.


Anonymous said...

You have to try the empanadas at Escalantes and at Ruggles Green. I love them both!

anonymouseater said...

Thanks. I will.

I notice from the menu that the Ruggles Green dish is called "Hi-Protein Hempenada." It's made with hemp seed and hemp flour.

If I eat those, I'm not going to test positive, am I?

Travis said...

If for some reason you find yourself in San Antonio, check out Beto's Comida Latina on Broadway near 410. From what i remember, they had some really tasty empanadas (chicken pablano and banana de leche were my favorites). Then again, the memory can play funny tricks on you.

Jdvn1 said...

Note that Marini's and Manena's are both Argentine places. Empanadas are common in a number of countries, each with their own flavor. Also note that empanadas are not necessarily fried--they can be baked.

For Venezuelan empanadas, try Tuttopane ( There's also a Venezuelan cart, but I don't recall where it is at the moment.

Anonymous said...

my favorite- hands down is manena's- they don't have that icky fried flavor and all are delicious- heck, everything (desserts, migas) at manena's is great.

the ones at rustika are OK- i remember them being a little bready and a bit dry.

la guadalupana in montrose does fairly good mexican empanadas- i would try to get the pumpkin flavor if you can!

Anonymous said...

my favorite empanadas aren't made with a flour based pastry crust but with a finely ground corn meal based crust. they crisp up very nicely when fried. that's the way i learned to eat them as a child in venezuela.


Anonymous said...

I agree. I tried the Katy location a year ago and was underwhelmed. I've nothing against fried food and was looking for a tasty, flaky crust. Ingredients seemed high quality but a little bland. Looking forward to hearing about an alternative.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to hear what you thought of Manena's. Their empanadas are baked and don't have that awful fried flavor where you can taste everything else that's gone into the fryer before it. :)

Oh, and I'm praying you got the tiramisu there... :D

Jenn said...

I agree completely about Marini's - when I tried them the texture of the crust reminded me of premade eggrolls heated in the oven. Bad.

This is ridiculous, but I really like the empanaditas at Americas on Post Oak. I think you can get them at the bar. They are the best thing there, in my opinion.

chris said...

The best empanadas are made from suet pastry. we a t Catalan make ours from local pork and the pastry dough is made from the fat that comes from around the kidney.

Anonymous said...

Wow... I completely disagree with all of you. My family has been going to Marini's since the '70s and we love them!

The flavors that they have now, taste just like the ones back then They are NOTHING like Chili's.

You seriously must be living in a box if you think that Manena's is better. I went there and the grease from inside the empanada was coming through the dough. The beef tasted exactly like the chicken.

The baked ones are just as good as the fried.

Escalante's empanadas, to me, suck. I didn't like the. They had that "icky fried taste."

I think you guys are wrong about Marini's. The atmosphere is great!!! The Marini family are one of a kind.

The name means it's the original family that owned it, not the house that it was first established at.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your blog, but have to throw in my 2c.

I agree with the previous poster that said that empanadas are common in a number of countries and therefore you will find different varieties, textures, etc. For example, I am colombian and our empanadas are made with a different type of dough - but all (including Marini's) are delicious.

Times have changed and while back then (when they originally surfaced) they had a different vibe or scene - that doesn't mean that they are not the same. I asked them why they didn't just call themselves Marini's Empanadas and the reason they call themselves the 'original' Marini's is because they have had several imitators and therefore have to set themselves apart from the rest.

I don't think that because it is in a chain type local that they are gonna pop up all over the place like your chili's referrence. Since you have such a good memory of how it was back in the day - then you would remember that they had 'flair' all over the walls. The only difference now is that you can't write your name everywhere.

If these are so bad, why as you said - was it so busy on a Tuesday at lunch? I don't think it had anything to do with the FLAIR. I think you should give them a second chance.. or should we wait for part 2?

anonymouseater said...

LP (or should I say Lizzette) - Any idea where to get Venezuelan-style empanadas in Houston? Those sound good?

Chris (or should I say Chef) - I haven't seen empanadas on Catalan's menu. When do you guys have them?

chris said...

They are part of the street food section that is on the menu now. We do our interpratations of strret foods from different coutries.

Anonymous said...

I went to Ruggles Green last week and enjoyed the hempanadas. I too had imagined some sort of weird grassy taste, but your post encouraged me and I'm glad I tried them.

Catalan will be next!

Joe Virant said...

I'm a little late on this, but I've had tremendously tasty empanadas in the Chilean style at El Temucano on Synott. I've been on several occasions with a Chilean friend who swears by it. Not sure if you've reviewed it previously or not! said...

Here, I do not actually consider this will have success.